Disclaimer: .hack/SIGN and all its characters are properties of BeeTrain Studio and Bandai Entertainment. They do not belong to me. This work is purely fiction and only meant to be a token of love and gratitude toward an anime series, a masterpiece that I truly love.
.hack/SIGN: WHERE I BELONG
Chapter one: A peaceful Saturday
Misono Madoka, thirty-seven-year old this July, was an office lady who divided her daily hours between working on the fourth floor of Hakusensha Publishing Incorporation and caring for her paraplegic daughter at home. Her life, ever since a car accident killed her husband and crippled her dear daughter Misono Mariko, was mostly dead. The only wish Madoka had now was to see her Mariko be able to walk once more. She knew it was possible. Her coworkers had informed her that beyond the sea, all the way in the United States, there were people who could provide a cure to Mariko's condition. It was just that... Madoka could never afford the price for her daughter's full recovery with the meager monthly salary she received. She went to the local Shinto shrine every weekend as a result, praying that the Gods would let her win the lottery just so she could return to her daughter the ability to walk. They didn't seem to have heard her pleas.
Sighing, Madoka washed the rest of the dishes and went back to the bedroom of her apartment on the sixth floor of the twenty-story Kanagawa Place. She would have preferred renting a small house for herself and Mariko instead of this little 2DK, of course. With the child's legs disabled so, the closer to the ground she lived, the safer Madoka would feel when she had to leave the house for work early every morning. The only problem was, again, money. Madoka's pitiful income wouldn't allow her to live anywhere else in Tokyo except this cubbyhole of an apartment, which was already ridiculously overpriced. Had her husband survived, the combined financial abilities of the two of them could have given Mariko a much better life... Sometimes she couldn't help but despair and wonder how the Gods could have put a virtuous family like hers in such a tight spot.
In her bedroom, Madoka changed into an outfit suitable for going out, briefly glancing at the mirror on the wardrobe. She was only thirty-six this year... yet hour after hour of running back and forth between her job and her home had but added a few years to her face, once pretty enough to make any man turn his head and look. Sighing again and trying to forget the thought about how her appearance had deteriorated over the years, she looked at the clock on the table by her bed. It read one fifteen in the afternoon. The appointment at the hospital for Mariko's weekly checkup was at two, so she would have plenty of time left. Madoka wondered if she should take the child to some fancy restaurant afterwards for a change. Gods knew how long they had been forced to live on canned food just because Madoka didn't have the time to cook. She was such a terrible mother at times.
"Come in, mom," said the gentle voice of Madoka's daughter when she knocked on the door to the child's room.
Inside, on a wheelchair in front of the computer desk sat Madoka's daughter, Misono Mariko, in a simple white T-shirt, a blue coat, and a pair of black jeans. The girl was on the phone. Madoka didn't have to guess to know the person to whom her daughter was talking. There could only be one. "See you soon, An," Mariko whispered into her mobile and hung up, thus confirming Madoka's suspicion. She sighed. 'The brat again,' Madoka thought gloomily. She still couldn't see what her daughter saw in someone with such a questionable character and background like the girl named Shouji An. Or maybe Madoka just disliked the girl too much to do that...
"Shouji-san is coming over?" Madoka cleared her throat and asked. Her daughter's friend once insisted that she be called by her first name. Madoka just refused to and gave no reason why she did. Although it made the girl and Mariko look quite uncomfortable every single time, Madoka didn't really care.
"Yes." Mariko nodded, a little smile forming on her lips. Twenty-year-old this February, with flowing blue hair that fell past her shoulders and a face many girls would kill to have, Mariko always looked mature and dignified, very much unlike the brat that appeared out of nowhere two months ago, Madoka had noticed. She guessed she had raised her daughter well.
"But we are coming to the hospital for your checkup," Madoka reminded her daughter. "Why make her come here?"
"You forgot, mom?" Mariko gave her a puzzled look. "I told you last night that I asked An to pick me up and take me to the hospital today."
"Did you?" Madoka asked absentmindedly, not really expecting an answer, for she had a feeling her daughter was telling the truth. When she came home around eight in the evening last night, she had been so tired that she headed straight for bed without bothering to even change her clothes. She must have heard Mariko mention it and then forgotten about it as soon as her back landed on mattress of her bed.
Mariko wheeled forward and stopped in front of Madoka, where the girl took Madoka's right hand into both of hers. "You have been working yourself very hard lately, mom," she said softly. "Why don't you take a little break today and relax?" Concern all but shone in the child's amber eyes.
Madoka placed her vacant hand on her daughter's head and stroked it gently, her very own overwhelmed with thoughts. She knew that Mariko was very worried about her health, and that the child only wished her well by asking someone else to bring her to the hospital instead... Still, why did Mariko have to pick Shouji An out of all the people she knew?
'What is so good about someone you had only met but a few months ago, little one?' Madoka thought. She couldn't quite bring herself to ask her daughter that question directly, though, as she was deathly frightened of the possibility that she would receive an answer she couldn't accept. She knew all too well what kind of feelings her daughter harbored toward Shouji after all… maybe almost as well as Mariko herself did.
"Does Shouji-san know where the hospital is?" she asked.
"An doesn't," Mariko smiled as she let go of Madoka's hand, "but I know, don't I? I can show her the way."
"Well then, I'll go to the supermarket instead," Madoka said in resignation. "What do you want for dinner today, Mariko?"
"Ah, I'm sorry, mom," the child murmured apologetically. "An told me on the phone just now that her father invited me for dinner over at their house. I'm going there after the checkup and won't be home until seven or so in the evening, I think." Madoka's hand, released by her daughter just a moment ago, curled into a fist almost instinctively. Unable to straighten it out, she hid it behind her back. Thankfully, the child didn't notice.
"I see," was all she could force herself to say to her paraplegic daughter. Silence stretched between them, with Madoka standing there like a lamp post and not really knowing what else she should say, until the door bell rang loudly and provided her with an escape.
"I think that's An." A bright smile bloomed on Mariko's lips. "She was in the neighborhood when she called me on her cell phone."
"I'll answer the door," Madoka told the child in a half-hearted voice. Only very dimly did she notice that her daughter had given her a very odd look before she walked out of the room.
"Good afternoon, oba-san," Shouji An greeted her awkwardly the moment the door opened. In a casual shirt, a sweater, and a pair of shorts that barely went past her knees, with short brown hair framing a face that didn't give out much sense of femininity, the girl would have been mistaken for a boy without the curve of her chest. Even her voice was almost as deep as that of a man, for crying out loud.
"Hello, Shouji-san," Madoka said politely. Truth be told, she never wanted to be called "oba-san" in such a familiar manner by someone she disliked... but she didn't know what her daughter would say should she tell Shouji to stop addressing her as such. "Come on in," she invited, her voice somewhat stiff. The Gods knew Madoka still hadn't been able to cope with the fact that she was going to spend her Saturday all alone while her daughter was gallivanting off and having fun with her... friend. It was surely going to be a long day...
"Um, here..." said the seventeen-year-old as she handed Madoka a bouquet that was full of white lilies, the fragrance of which was so strong she very nearly pulled away instead of taking it. "Please pardon my intrusion," Shouji murmured before she took off her Nike sneakers, put them behind the doorstep, and finally went inside. When she walked past Madoka, she couldn't help but notice that the girl had grown a little bit taller. A few months back, Madoka topped Shouji easily by half a head; now, they were of equal heights. She but wondered if youngsters these days all grew up so fast...
"Hi there," said her daughter, who was smiling and waving her hand at her friend. Somehow, Mariko had managed to follow Madoka all the way to the door without her noticing. Well, she wasn't paying much attention to her surrounding she supposed...
"Are you well, Mariko?" Shouji said as she knelt on the wooden floor, right in front of Madoka's daughter. The newcomer then took Mariko's hands into her own and squeezed them tenderly, the former's deep blue eyes locked with the latter's amber, lips curving upward into a bright smile. The way they looked at each other so affectionately, neither seemed to be able to notice that Madoka was standing right there, her hands clutching the bouquet.
"Didn't I tell you that I was well every time you asked on the phone or in The World?" Mariko gave the girl three years her junior a soft smile. She sounded very fond.
"I couldn't see you then." Shouji An returned the smile with one just as soft. "But I'm glad you're healthy, Mariko. I'm sorry I couldn't come online much lately," she said, her tone apologetic. "Life's been hectic with all the midterm exams." She paused and continued, her voice dropping so low Madoka almost didn't hear what she said, "I missed you." The seventeen-year-old girl's face was a little bit red.
"I missed you, too," replied Madoka's daughter, her shy voice equally quiet.
Madoka almost snorted. Shouji An came over to visit every weekend, and according to Mariko, they met frequently in an online game they called "The World". Why did they have to act as if it had been years since they last saw each other... every single time?
Madoka cleared her throat. Each of the two girls gave a start, finally realized that they were not alone, and took up a serious study of the floor beneath their feet.
"It's one thirty already," she reminded them. "You should go."
"Ah yes," said Mariko and Shouji An in unison, appearing more flustered than ever. Madoka believed both of them had forgotten about her daughter's doctor appointment... and maybe also the rest of the world while they gazed into each other's eyes. It wasn't going to be long until that which was inevitable happened. Yet even so... Madoka only hoped that day would never come.
"We'll be going then, mom." Mariko's voice jerked Madoka back to reality, where she noticed that the two girls had already gone outside and were now looking at her. How long did she remain in a daze, really?
"Have fun then, Mariko," she paused, then added, "and be careful."
Each of the girls gave Madoka an odd look before they closed the door and left. Muttering darkly to herself, Madoka went back to her room, sat down on the bed, and took the photo of her late husband, encased in a glass frame, into her hands.
"Kohei-san, I'm really lonely right now, do you know?" Madoka whispered to the picture. "Ever since you passed away, I've been spending all the time and effort I can spare into raising our daughter, hoping she can find her happiness. Mariko's all I have left in this world; although I fear the day where she leaves me behind and moves on with her life, I wish from the bottom of my heart that somehow she'd meet a man who'd love her, care for her, and live happily by her side forever." A tear leaked out of the corner of her eye and rolled down her cheek. "Yet, I never imagined that our daughter would fall in love with another girl like this." She held the frame closer to her heart and sobbed. "I don't want her to walk down such a sinful path... but I don't want to hurt her either. What should I do now, Kohei-san?"
"I'm sorry, An, what was that?" Misono Mariko, sitting on her wheelchair guided by her young companion, asked when she realized that her friend had said something she failed to catch. At the moment, they were inside a park that happened to be on the way to the hospital. There were other routes, of course, but Madoka would always pick this one despite the fact that it would cost them an extra ten minutes. Mariko was thankful to her mother for that, as she truly loved the cool shade provided by the trees in the park as well as the luxuriously verdant color that enveloped everything in sight.
"It's... nothing," replied the brown-haired girl, her voice slightly apprehensive. When Mariko turned her head to look, she realized that the face of the girl three years her junior was painted with unease. Mariko didn't really have to guess to know what was bothering the person who had become more than just a part of her life.
"I'm sorry about what happened at my house," Mariko said quietly.
"Not that I'm complaining or anything but... your mom doesn't like me, does she?" An scratched her cheek and gave Mariko an apologetic smile.
Mariko fell silent. The answer to her friend's question was surely a "Yes". Ever since her mom met An a few months back, Mariko had realized immediately that the feelings Madoka harbored toward the girl were less than amiable. Mariko just couldn't understand why. True, An was a slightly temperamental kid who sometimes would get depressed for apparently no reason at all. Sure, her social and communication skills weren't that good, and she didn't exactly feel comfortable around people at times, either, all thanks to the terrible treatments she had received from her father since childhood. But those were no reasons to dislike her, Mariko believed, especially when respect was all with which An had treated Madoka. The latter should have known that had she not been Mariko's mother, all she could have gotten from An was the indifferent attitude the girl assumed in front of nearly everybody else.
Mariko glanced at the brown-haired girl, who was looking at her with a slightly saddened face, and felt her heart clench. There was no one she liked more than An in this world, so she had wanted her mother, the person whom she deeply cherished and to whom she was eternally grateful, to get along with the girl, too. Yet, it turned out that reality rarely was bent by one's wish. She doubted the way Madoka felt about An was going to change any time soon. How sad that the relationship between the two most important persons in Mariko's life had to turn out like this...
"What do you think she disliked me for, though?" An asked.
"I... don't know, An," Mariko confessed. "I honestly don't. But please, don't hate her, ne. Mom isn't a bad person. Maybe she's just... just..." She trailed off, not really knowing what she should say to defend Madoka.
The wheelchair pulled into a halt near a gushing fountain. There were no other people nearby.
"I don't hate her," said Shouji An, who had fallen down on one knee in front of Mariko. The girl had taken Mariko's right hand into hers once more and held it against her own cheek. "No matter how she treats me, I'm not going to hate her. So don't you worry, Mariko."
"That's very nice of you, An." Mariko gave her companion a grateful smile, which made her blush. The girl's coloring cheek was very warm against Mariko's palm.
"Only because she's your mother," murmured the seventeen-year-old. "I can't care less about other people, you know that."
"I can't say I have no problem with that attitude of yours," Mariko gave a quiet chuckle that was part rueful and part amused. "But it'll do for now, I guess." She cupped An's face with both of her hands, lifted it up, and gave the girl a light kiss on the lips. When Mariko pulled away, the face of the brown-haired high school freshman had become so red it could easily match the color of a ripe tomato. An was ever so shy. It wasn't the first time they kissed since their confession a couple of weeks ago… yet the girl never had the courage to do more than just holding Mariko's hand even when they were in private. But the Gods standing witness, An's innate bashfulness was one of the aspects that made her seem so endearing in Mariko's eyes.
Mimiru was sitting in a slump on the stone bank of the Mac Anu, the river that was the namesake of the Aqua Capital, when someone's hand was placed on her shoulder. Looking up, she saw the tall and wide figure of the Heavyblade senior Bear, who was smiling indulgently at her like a kind father would his favorite daughter. Mimiru couldn't be sure that Bear, a wealthy novelist in real life, didn't see her as one, though. In fact, she had reasons to believe that the middle-aged swordsman saw every newbie in The World as his surrogate child… until they learned how to fend for themselves against the monsters and the Player Killers, of course. Mimiru had never had the courage to tell Bear this but… the man needed to learn that he shouldn't continue to feel so guilty toward his own son, whom he once neglected, that he kept on looking for people to watch over in The World. Besides, he had Tsukasa now, didn't he?
"Waiting for Godot again?" said Bear, who sat down next to her.
"No, I'm not." Mimiru gave the newcomer a look. That joke was getting pretty old, really.
"Then why are you sitting here looking so bored?"
"Because I am bored," Mimiru muttered. "I guess there's a limit to how long The World can keep my interest. Now with the whole Key of the Twilight business over and Morgana gone for good, it's just… too peaceful around here, don't you think?"
"I don't think so." The other Heavyblade laughed. "Ever since the Crimson Knights were disbanded, Player Killers have been popping up all over the place. Didn't you read the BBS? The dungeons of Carmina Gadelica are crawling with them."
"I blame it on CC Corp. Administrators," Mimiru said disapprovingly. "They made this game. Shouldn't they provide necessary measures to counter people who violate the rules?"
"Well, you see, there are all sorts of complications. For one, they don't have the resources to monitor all the dungeons and millions of users worldwide," the man explained. "The Crimson Knights, on the other hand, had mobility, enthusiasm, and the trust of the users of The World."
"Well, maybe if a new group similar to the Knights were founded…." She trailed off.
"You noticed, didn't you," Bear gave her a knowing smile. "There are very few people with leadership skills among us. The strong PCs usually keep to themselves. The weak ones usually don't have the credibility. Subaru was the sole exception. From the very beginning she had the support of Crim, who was powerful enough to rally people to his cause. When he left, Subaru had already gained enough trust from the members to manage the guild all on her own. Besides, she herself was a great leader. Her will is strong, her heart true and kind. Not many PCs are like that."
"Speaking of whom, where is she lately?" Mimiru decided to change the topic. The conversation was getting a little bit too political for her taste. "I haven't met her in here for a while. Has she given up on The World?"
"Oh she came in here quite often, don't you know?" The novelist gave her a puzzled look.
"Never saw her!" Mimiru exclaimed.
Bear shrugged. "Well, An, I mean Tsukasa, told me they met regularly online during the evenings, once she had finished her classes over in the boarding school…." It was the man's turn to trail off as a look of comprehension dawned on his tattooed angular face.
It was but obvious that the Wavemaster and the Heavy Axe had been hanging out in a place where other PCs couldn't disturb them. Tsukasa and Subaru had been doing that even before the former was returned to the real world, what could stop them from doing it again now? Mimiru only wondered how they could sit in one place and do nothing without being bored to death. Those two girls were odd… just odd….
"Anyways, since you're bored," Bear cleared his throat, "why don't you come visit us? Subaru's coming over for dinner later."
"Really? Can I? Can I?"
"Of course." The middle-aged man patted her gently on the head. "You're always welcome to visit. Tsukasa would love to see you, I'm sure."
"Hurray!" A huge smile split Mimiru's face into two. There was nothing to eat at her house tonight, since her mom and dad had gone off to some high school reunion party without her, and although they did leave money for her to order whatever she could think of, she wasn't exactly in the mood for having dinner all by herself. Bear's invitation, in fact, was a lifeboat thrown to her while she was drowning in the ocean. Besides… coming there would mean meeting Tsukasa again. Mimiru had missed the girl so very much….
Sakuma Ryo was lounging comfortably in a couch in his living room and listening intently to his cell phone when he heard the sound of a key twisting inside the lock of the front door. He didn't have to wait to hear the voice of a girl laughing wholeheartedly a few seconds later to know that his adopted daughter had brought her friend home. Quickly murmuring a few words of apology and a promise to call back later into the phone, Ryo hung up and placidly walked to the entrance, where he found the familiar figure of the twenty-year-old Misono Mariko. The paraplegic girl, bespectacled and in casual clothes that could hide neither her beauty nor the calm and soothing aura she radiated, was sitting quietly on her wheelchair while Ryo's little daughter was kneeling in front of her and helping her take the shoes off.
"Good afternoon, Ryo-san." Mariko offered him a respectful bow from where she sat.
"Welcome to my humble abode, Lady Subaru." Ryo returned the bow with a deep incline of his head. "I hope you will enjoy your stay." He made the young woman smile.
"Oh, dad, I thought you wouldn't be home until the evening," said An, who raised her head and blinked at Ryo. If anything, she sounded more disappointed than surprised. Ryo, on the other hand, knew perfectly why the girl did. Years of studying human behaviors for his novels and associating with all sorts of people in real life as well as in The World had but taught him how to derive meanings from even the smallest gestures of his adopted child. Besides, An wasn't exactly difficult to read the way she wore her heart on her sleeve as soon as she got within twenty feet of Mariko anyway….
"BT couldn't come," Ryo explained. "We planned to have lunch and then go to some movie together but she called me earlier and told me that her boss summoned her back to her company. We had no other choice but to cancel the date."
"I see," An muttered almost dejectedly. Mariko, on the other hand, confined herself to a knowing and amused chuckle behind her dainty raised hand.
"More importantly, An," Ryo said casually, "when are you going to finish what you're doing?" He had to try his best to keep a straight face. His daughter gave him a confused look before she looked down at her hands and realized that she was still holding Mariko's bare foot in such a way that she would make any sale assistant at a shoe store blush. Cheeks aflame, the brown-haired girl let go of her friend's foot and started working on the other one while Mariko looked at her with a tender face that spoke of volumes of affection. It would seem that the relationship between the two of them had gone a very long way since An was returned to the real world.
"So, kiddies, what do you want for dinner?" Ryo asked. "I'll be your chef tonight."
"I thought we were ordering food from that Chinese restaurant, dad." An stared at him. He could almost hear the note of fright entering the girl's voice.
"Well, that was what I intended but… I don't really like the one delivery guy they had," Ryo said. "He likes to dawdle so it'd be a miracle if we get our food within an hour. Besides, I can cook, you know." He glanced at his adopted daughter playfully.
"You sure?" An glanced back at him, her pace painted with disbelief. "The last time you made curry, you made it taste like cat chow. Besides… you mainly lived on canned food when I was at school, didn't you?"
"You made it sound like a bad thing," Ryo said in a feigned disapproving tone. Meanwhile, Mariko's quiet chuckle in the background only grew richer and much more amused. "And I will have you know that I followed the recipe very carefully. It had that horrible taste in the end was only because…."
"You mistook sugar for salt," An cut in, "and somehow you managed to pour half a bottle or so of vinegar into the pot without ever noticing it."
"Exactly, innocent mistakes," Ryo declared. "I assure you that there won't be a second time."
"You said that the last time too, and look what happened."
"Oh come on, stop making your father look bad in front of your friend, will you?"
"I'm really glad that you get along so well, An, Ryo-san," Mariko said, a bright smile adorning her lips, true joy shining in her amber eyes.
Ryo laughed "If getting along meant that we argued every time she came home in the weekend or holidays, then we certainly did." That was the truth, though. He and An tended to debate over the strangest and most trivial thing as soon as they went near each other. However, their words never held any heat, and both of them knew perfectly well that they were ninety percent playful and ten percent serious. They argued for fun, and that was it. Compared to the hell that was the cold atmosphere between Ryo and his biological son, verbal jousting with An surely was nothing less than a paradise. Besides, he, too, was aware of the fact that An had been tight-mouthed since she was little. The fact that she was willing to speak at length with him clearly showed that she had accepted him as a part of her life, something that more than warmed his heart.
"Anyways, I was kidding earlier when I said I was going to cook... but I was serious about not ordering Chinese food. Hey, An, how about I take you two to some good restaurant BT recommended earlier?"
The brown-haired girl gave her lips a few thoughtful taps before she said, "I think staying home is fine. I'll do the cooking." She got down on one knee in front of her friend, looked up at her, and asked, "Is there anything you particularly crave for at the moment, Mariko?" Ryo could have sworn that his adopted daughter had never spoken to him in such a sweet and gentle voice before. But well... An showing signs of favoritism was nothing new to him. After all, he knew perfectly well that despite the fact that he had adopted her and given her a new life, he would never be able to grow as close to An as Mariko was.
"You know how to cook?" Mariko blinked at her friend, surprise evident on her youthful face.
"I never told you?" An scratched the back of her head and asked ruefully. "But yeah, I do. Before I came to live here, I spent the majority of my time staying indoor, you know. I had to learn how to cook or I'd starve for sure."
"I see," Mariko said quietly as she looked at An with her amber eyes that were glowing with sympathy. Ryo guessed the young woman was thinking about how much An had suffered during the time she lived with her biological father. Truth be told, Ryo himself always found rage choking his throat whenever he thought of the man who had ruined the first seventeen years of An's precious life. He still couldn't believe how such a vulgar, cold-hearted, and despicable man could exist.
Sighing, he decided to change the topic. "Yes, you don't need to hold out on us, Mariko. Tell us what you want. If An can't make it, most likely she can't anyway, I'll find a place to order it for you." That earned him a glance of disapproval from his adopted daughter. He elected to ignore it.
"Then, I guess I'd like something with lots of vegetable." Mariko smiled. "Anything's fine."
"How about some chicken salad with mandarin orange?" An suggested. "It's easy to make, and it tastes very good."
"Sounds wonderful," replied the paraplegic young lady, her smile growing wider and wider as she focused her gaze upon An.
"An, our fridge is empty," Ryo reminded his daughter. Actually it wasn't, as there were a few casks of beers inside but...
"It's okay. I'll write out all the ingredients I need. Would you get them from the grocery store for me then, dad?" the girl said, seemingly unable to peel her deep blue eyes off her friend on the wheelchair.
"Me? Why me? I thought I was the father." Ryo feigned displeasure.
"Who else?" An gave him a look and acted as if what she said was the most obvious thing in the world. "I'm not taking Mariko outside again in this cold weather."
"You can go alone," Ryo suggested.
"And leave Mariko to you? No way. You'll bore her to death with your old man talk."
"She may like to hear about the novel I'm currently working on."
"No she won't. Your writing is horrible."
Mariko burst into a fit of laughter that didn't die down a few minutes after An and Ryo had stopped their mock shouting match. The young woman had had to pull a handkerchief from her coat pocket to dab at a few tears that leaked from the corners of her eyes.
"Fine, fine," Ryo said. "Write me your ingredients. I'll go."
"Okay. I'll be right back, Mariko." With that, An hurried inside.
"I'm sorry, Mariko," Ryo told his guest. "We've been talking for so long and we haven't even invited you into the living room. How rude of us."
"You seem to be leading a very exciting life with An here, Ryo-san," Mariko smiled and commented.
"Well yes," Ryo answered with a smile of his own. "The house was always noisy with her around during weekends, so much so that when she left for school, I felt as if it had become quieter than a grave. I really missed her during the weekdays as a result, you see."
"I'm surprised she was this lively at home," Mariko said. "She's usually very quiet around me."
'Not that surprising, Lady Subaru,' Ryo thought. 'An would be just as lively around anybody she trusts. She was quiet when you two were alone because she spent too much time looking at you to remember how to talk. Besides, she loves you so much I doubt she can think straight in your presence.'
He couldn't say that right out, though, so he kept his mouth shut. He shouldn't let the two of them know that he had been aware of their change in relationship from the very start, in any event. An wouldn't like it if he did. She'd think that he had been sniffing around on them or something. Once, in the past, when An was still trapped as Tsukasa in The World, she had been very displeased upon learning that Ryo had been investigating her true identity in the real world. The girl's sense of privacy was really prickly sometimes.
Footsteps thundered toward them as the brown-haired girl emerged from the living room.
"Here you go, dad," said An, who handed Ryo a piece of paper as soon as she got close to him. She seemed very eager to kick him out of the house. He could only chuckle to himself in mild exasperation. He guessed a dad ranked way below a girlfriend in his daughter's list, after all.
"Okay, fine, fine, but I'll need to make a phone call first. I'll go after that. Happy?"
"Yep," his adopted daughter with no hesitation in her… joyous voice. Ryo all but wondered whether he had spoiled her too much. But oh well, An was a good girl at heart. No matter how much one spoiled her, she couldn't be as bad at his biological son, he supposed. Besides, he wasn't the only one who did that anyway. Ryo glanced at Mariko, who was gazing at his daughter as if no one else in this whole wide world existed.
"Sure, I'll take Mariko to my room, then," An said. Suddenly, her cheeks colored furiously as though she had just realized that she had uttered something very embarrassing.
"Do you need a hand? Your room is on the second floor," Ryo reminded her. If anything, his question seemed to have only fanned the flames that were raging on his daughter's cheeks. She was red all the way to her ears now. For some reason, though, a faint light of defiance glowed in her deep blue eyes.
"It's okay. I can carry Mariko on my own," An muttered. Ryo wagered that even if An was going to break her back bringing the young woman to her room, she still would not ask for his help. An was a possessive girl, after all. There was just no way in hell she'd let anyone else touch Mariko.
"Be careful, then," Ryo said.
"Yes, I will," answered An as she bent over and carefully scooped Mariko up into her arms. The latter, whose face was utterly gentle and slightly colored, put her arms around An's neck, rested her head upon An's shoulder, and let the girl carry her up the stair that led to the second floor. Eyes glued at his daughter's retreating back, Ryo asked himself for the thousandth time whether An was going to be happier, or sadder at the announcement he was going to make.
"I'm heavy, aren't I?" Misono Mariko asked as her back was being laid against the headboard of An's queen-sized bed. The brown-haired girl's room, large and better furnished than most of the rooms Mariko had had the chance to visit, contained everything one could possibly need. It would appear that Ryo-san never even thought of holding back on the money when he bought the state-of-the-art PC that was installed with the latest ALTIMIT Operating System, a powerful air conditioner that would be a relief in Tokyo's scorching summers and freezing winters, and a wardrobe that was twice as large as Mariko's own. She guessed it was racked with pretty and expensive clothes, too. Oh how glad she was that An had Ryo-san for a dad, someone who loved her, who cared for her as if she was his true daughter.
"No." An shook her head. The high school freshman was standing at the edge of the bed, face as red as it was when she picked Mariko up and carried her to the second floor. "You're not heavy," she insisted in a soft voice even when the beading sweat on her forehead told Mariko otherwise.
"I'm a bit taller than you, An," Mariko said with a smile. "And I know how much I weighed. Come over here, please?" She extended a hand to the younger girl, who took it and let herself be pulled gently onto the bed. By Mariko's side, upon the soft mattress, An sat quietly on her knees, chin slightly raised up, deep blue eyes locked with Mariko's amber, crimson face radiating so much heat Mariko could feel it caressing her own face. "Carrying me must have been torturous for you," Mariko joked as she pulled her handkerchief out and tenderly dried An's cheeks, temples, and forehead. When she was done and tried to withdraw her hand, An took it by the wrist and continued to hold it against her face. Mariko felt as though she herself was about to blush.
"Even if you were twice as heavy, even if you wanted me to carry you all my life, I'd be more than willing to, Mariko..." An said, both voice and hands trembling slightly, her eyes downcast. Mariko gazed at the girl she loved, feeling as though she was drifting on a sea of clouds. Those words, simple as they were, must have been spoken with all of An's heart. Else, they would have never sounded so sincere, so affectionate, and so moving at the same time.
Quietly, she pulled the high school freshman into a warm hug and murmured softly into her ear, "Silver Knight was a troublesome man whose common sense was corroded by his code of loyalty and honor. He lured you into a trap in The World, bound you, and imprisoned you. Yet, without him, I'd have never met and fallen in love with you, An. I'll always be grateful to him for that."
"I still think that you're better off without me, Mariko," An whispered back, her arms tightening around Mariko's back, her voice growing more and more anxious with every passing second.
Mariko pulled away and looked at the high school freshman sitting by her side. This wasn't the first time An was bothered by this exact same issue. It was one of the reasons why she avoided Mariko in the first place, for crying out loud.
She could still remember the first offline meeting between her and the girl she had come to love. It was the day following one in which the A.I. Aura awakened, in which the hacker Helba abandoned Net Slum to avoid the invasion of a humanoid data stream that was undoubtedly malicious. Mariko's connection was terminated and she was violently tossed out of The World as a result. When she reconnected, she could no longer find the PC named Tsukasa in any of the Root Towns, or the places they usually went to spend time by each other's side. She had wanted to go to the hospital where Tsukasa was kept in a vegetative state immediately... but she couldn't. It was a Friday, and her mom was still busy at work, so there was nothing she could do. The following morning, on the way to her desired destination, she was finally able to meet the person who held her heart. That person was a seventeen-year-old girl named Shouji An.
At first, Mariko and An were as inseparable as they were back in The World. During the first week following An's return, the girl had no school so she was able to visit Mariko every day, mostly in the mornings when Madoka was already off to work. They would sit by each other like always and simply enjoyed each other's company. Life had been so peaceful, so sweet, and so fulfilling... until Sakuma Ryo-san enrolled An in a boarding school on the other side of the city. By then, Mariko had already realized that although they were of the same gender, the feelings Mariko harbored toward An hadn't changed one bit. The girl never failed to make her heart sing upon every meeting, nor did she ever stop making Mariko miss her day and night. She didn't need to be told that she was already helplessly in love.
Knowing full well that her heart was no longer hers, Mariko tried her hardest to stay in touch with An, hoping that her feelings were mutual. Yet, despite Mariko's efforts, they started to drift apart. The number of phone calls they made became fewer and fewer, the duration of each call shorter and shorter, until An called no more. When the girl stopped visiting altogether during weekends, Mariko was but overwhelmed by anxiety. Since An stopped returning her calls, Mariko had no way of knowing what had gone wrong between them. At that point, she was only afraid that An had found someone she truly loved.
Worried, lovesick, and terribly anxious, Mariko finally decided to call the sole person who could help her. Sakuma Ryo-san, An's foster father. From the novelist's sudden pause on the phone, she guessed he had been very surprised when she asked him to take her to the school in which An was enrolled. Thankfully and fortunately, Ryo-san had agreed afterwards without bothering to ask why Mariko wanted to do such a thing, or why she had to ask him instead of his daughter. Within an hour's time, she and Ryo-san arrived at Touyou Eiwa Jogakuin, in the dormitory of which the high school freshman currently stayed. Oh how An had been shocked upon seeing Mariko and Ryo-san at the door to her room.
"Dad, Mariko!" exclaimed Shouji An, who was standing behind the open door in a casual white blouse and a pair of blue denim jeans. The left side of her face, surprisingly, was imprinted with a swollen red mark that looked too much like a hand for Mariko's comfort. She felt her heart throb. Did someone just hit An? And why? "What are you doing here?"
"We were having dinner nearby," Ryo-san answered after a brief glance at the red mark on his daughter cheek, "so we decided to drop by and see how you were doing." Apparently the man decided not to inquire as to what had happened.
"Nearby?" An said suspiciously. Her deep blue eyes were so fixated on her foster father that it was clear she was avoiding looking at Mariko. She only wanted to cry. "But you two live on the other side of the city!"
"Does that mean we can't have a meal wherever we want?" Ryo-san laughed. "I'll have you know that Ethiopian restaurant's extremely well-known. Even the infamous picky eater BT was pleased by the food they served."
"I see," replied An, who didn't seem to have believed the story. Well, at least half of it was the truth. Mariko and Ryo-san did go to that Ethiopian restaurant for dinner before they came here. Mariko hadn't exactly wanted to do that, for she only wished to see An as soon as possible, but the novelist informed her that An had club activities until seven in the evening every Tuesday so they had at least an hour to spare. Besides, since Ryo-san said that his stomach was empty, and that he really wanted to try out the restaurant BT recommended, Mariko couldn't bring herself to refuse him. She was the one asking for a favor, after all...
"Anyways, I'll leave you two alone," the tall novelist declared, "There's someone I need to see on campus."
"Someone?" An asked skeptically.
"My old friend the headmistress," Ryo-san answered with a smile. "She helped smooth your enrollment into this prestigious school, remember?" With that, he trod down the hallway and left, leaving Mariko at the door to An's room, awkward, tongue-tied, and slightly afraid of what was going to happen should she go inside and talk to the girl she loved.
"We can't stand here and talk, can we?" An said after a while, her voice strangely quiet. "Let me help you inside." She ran outside and guided the wheelchair into the room, then closed the door with a very soft clicking sound of the bolt.
"So... how are you, An?" Mariko asked once the younger girl had settled on the bed, near where the wheelchair was. There was only one bed in this room, so Mariko guessed every student had their own private quarters.
"I'm okay," the brown-haired girl answered, voice a bit stiff.
Silence followed, with Mariko gazing at An, who focused her eyes on the piece of red carpet beneath her bare feet. Suddenly, Mariko caught sight of something beyond An's slender shoulders, on the computer desk in one corner of the room. It was a cute white teddy bear no larger than a hand, whose paws were holding a piece of heart-shaped red carton that read, "For An, my beloved."
"That's a cute teddy bear, An," Mariko said, her voice oddly calm and collected. "Where did you get it from?"
An looked over her shoulder, saw what Mariko was referring to... and her face went pale. "A girl in the movie club... gave it to me before you and dad came," she muttered. "She said it was for Valentine's Day."
"Today's Valentine's Day?" Mariko asked distantly. "I didn't know." It was of no surprise to her that she never realized that today was February the fourteenth, in fact, as she had spent the last ten years of her life mostly indoor, where she isolated herself from the real world. Besides, with her mind being clouded by An's absence and unusual behaviors lately, even if someone had waved a chocolate box wrapped in red foil beneath her nose, Mariko still wouldn't have noticed.
"A week in a new school, and you have someone interested in you already." Mariko forced herself to smile. She barely could. "Is she cute?"
An opened her mouth as though trying to say something, then firmly closed it and nodded. Mariko felt as though a stake had just been driven through her body.
"She's... actually a sempai in the movie club," the high school freshman murmured. "There are a lot of other girls who admired her. I never imagined that she chose me of all people to confess to,"
"Lucky you," Mariko said. The second fake smile came a bit easier this time. Although... it still hurt so much. "I hope she'll make you happy." Oh how those words rang hollow in Mariko's own ears. So this was how one would feel when one fell in love but could never get one's feelings across.
"She won't," An said ruefully. Mariko blinked. "She just slapped me and stormed down the hallway before you guys arrived." Her hand rose to touch her swollen cheek. The girl grimaced. "I didn't know she was so strong. Not even Mimiru hurt me this badly when she hit me in The World."
"But... she gave you that present and confessed to you! How could she hurt you?" The answer came to Mariko even before she finished what she was saying.
"I told her I wasn't interested," An replied, her face growing redder and redder. "Somehow, we got into this huge shouting match and she got really, really offended by something I said. In the end, she slapped me and left." Her gaze fell upon her desk, where her little teddy bear was. "I wish she would take it with her, though."
"What did you tell her to have made her so angry?" Mariko asked.
"Well... I... I... forgot already," said An, who looked away in what was obviously guilt. The girl was lying. Mariko was about to inquire further when the door to the room suddenly swung open and admitted a tall, lean girl whose black raven hair fell all the way to her waist, and whose face was so pretty she probably could make any man look twice. Or she would have, had a shadow of fury not made her seem more than ready to chew rocks. This must have been the sempai An was just talking about, Mariko said to herself.
"Who's this?" the newcomer demanded rudely, blatant jealousy hissing in her heated voice.
An opened her mouth as though to answer, but for reasons Mariko failed to grasp, the younger girl went red in the face and said nothing. Meanwhile, her sempai continued to scrutinize Mariko and An with a pair of brown eyes that seemed to glow even brighter than the fluorescent light tube hanging on the ceiling. The tall girl looked more and more annoyed by the second, Mariko noticed.
"I'm Misono Mariko," she decided to introduce herself, since it was evident An was trying her best not to do that. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"My name's Nagamatsu Kaori. I'm..." The raven-haired girl was about to say something else, too, when she suddenly trailed off. "You're Mariko?" If her voice was merely heated before, it was now as hot as a roaring furnace. Her face suddenly grew so dark Mariko thought she'd have apoplexy.
"What did you come back here for, Kaori-sempai? I thought we were clear. Please leave, I have a visitor," An said hastily. If Mariko were to guess, she would say that An was more than eager to kick Nagamatsu out of the room. Was it because the latter had slapped the former... or was it because the former had some strange motive behind her lack of friendliness?
"So she was the reason you rejected me." Nagamatsu Kaori looked at An, her cold and sharp gaze very much at odds with the raging firestorm that was her voice. "You didn't mention she was a cripple, though." Those last words came out with a contemptuous sneer on the girl's lips.
Face suddenly blank, An closed the distance between her and her sempai, raised her hand, and gave the latter a full-arm slap. As if thunderstruck, Nagamatsu stared at An in disbelief and said nothing while blood silently trickled out of the corner of her mouth. Even Mariko blinked in shock. She never once imagined that An, shy and gentle as she was, would one day resort to violence.
"How dare you!" the taller girl shrieked. She fell silent, however, when her eyes fell upon the expression on her kouhai's face. The latter was shorter than the former at least by a full head, yet with her grim face and her thinned lips, An managed to exude a presence that dwarfed that of any other in this room. She looked... murderous.
"You say that word one more time and I swear you'll gain more than just a few bruises, sempai," the brown-haired freshman said angrily. "Now leave or I'll notify the dorm manager." Her hand, the palm of which was slightly reddened from hitting Nagamatsu Kaori, was hovering near a small button on the wall.
"You'll regret this, Shouji. Mark my words!" was what the raven-haired girl said before she turned and hurried out of the room.
Quietly, An closed the door, turned the lock, and then knelt down in front of the wheelchair, her face was a mask of agony. "I'm sorry my sempai said something so horrible to you, Mariko," she said in a deeply apologetic voice.
"People have been calling me worse, An, so I don't care anymore." Mariko smiled at the girl three years her junior, then raised her hand and touched An's left swollen cheek. "What I do care about, though, is why Nagamatsu said I was the reason you rejected her. Would you tell me, please?"
An gazed at Mariko for a good five minutes, face clouded by a screen of melancholy, before she decided to talk, "When I told Kaori that I wasn't interested in being her girlfriend, she asked me why. I said I was already in love with another girl... and that girl was a hundred times cuter and nicer than her." Mariko's pulse quickened. "Kaori didn't sit well with that, so as you know, we got in a shouting match and my tongue slipped... and I accidentally mentioned your name."
Mariko took a deep breath. "Accidentally", An had said. Had she only wanted to use Mariko as an excuse to drive Nagamatsu Kaori away, she would have mentioned Mariko's name from the very start. But in that case... did that mean...?
"Why did you say such a thing, An?" Mariko asked.
The high school freshman fell silent. When she spoke up again, her face was set with determination, "I'm sorry. I... just remember that I have to do something. I... may not return for the night. I'll call dad to pick you up. I'm... sorry." She rose to her feet and strode toward the door.
Being fully aware that An was running away and that unless she was stopped, Mariko would lose her chance forever, she placed her hands on the handles of the wheelchair and summoned every ounce of strength she had to push herself out of the seat. In a loud, painful thumping sound, she landed on her stomach upon the carpeted floor, where she felt a terrible sensation rippling along her every fiber. A storm of fireflies erupted across her vision as she cried out in pain. Under normal circumstances, she wouldn't have, as she had fallen numerous times ever since her legs were rendered useless, yet she knew that she needed to, in order to make An turn back.
"Are you alright, Mariko!" the high school freshman cried out in concern and agony as she ran to Mariko's side, where the girl helped her sit up straight. "How did you...?" She fell silent as soon as Mariko put her arms around An's neck and rest her own head on the latter's shoulder, though. The girl understood. "Why did you have to do such a dangerous thing to yourself?" she mumbled, her trembling hands clutching at the fabrics on Mariko's back.
"Would you have come back had I not done so?" Mariko said softly. Her young friend opened her mouth to say something, but Mariko hushed the girl by pressing a finger against her lips. "An, today's February the fourteenth, ne? I'm sorry I didn't remember it in time to make you some chocolate," she murmured as her hands reached inside the collar of her shirt and took out her necklace, which consisted of a little silver chain attached with a small bag woven from ornate cloth that she never took off unless she was in the shower. "But if you don't mind, please accept this, An. Happy Valentine's Day." She put the piece of ornament around An's neck.
The other girl's deep blue eyes went as wide as they could. "But this... is the omamori charm you've been keeping for the last ten years!" she stammered while frantically trying to take the necklace off and return it to Mariko. She didn't want that, so she put her hands atop An's own and stopped her.
"Have you come to dislike me so much you won't even accept a present from me?" Mariko gave An a soft smile that was meant to tell the girl she wasn't serious.
She knew why the girl panicked so, though. After all, the omamorifuda hidden within that ornately woven bag was what her mom bought from the Grand Shrine of Ise itself. Shortly after the car accident took away Mariko's father and her ability to walk, while Mariko was still lying helplessly and unconsciously on a hospital bed, Madoka had traveled all the way to Ise to pray for Mariko's recovery. When her mom returned, she brought with her this omamori good-luck charm as a present and told Mariko that she had to wear it on her neck at all times. She didn't know whether the charm held mystical powers or not, but it was a fact that for the last ten years, she hadn't experienced anything more perilous than a few scratches and bruises.
"I can't accept this, Mariko!" An said hastily.
"Yes you can," Mariko said in a quiet voice. "In case you haven't noticed, I love you, An." The high school freshman gaped at her openly. "It protected me for ten years. Now I want it to keep you safe, too."
Silence stretched between them as Mariko gazed at the girl to whom she just confessed her feelings. An, whose face was reddening, decided to speak up after a while, "But... I'm a girl."
"I fell for you all the way back in The World, where I had no idea how you looked like." Mariko sighed. "Even after you told me that you might be a girl in real life, my feelings never changed." She took the other girl's right hand and placed it on her left chest. An blushed furiously. "It was your soul that touched me, I told you once, didn't I?" Mariko continued. "No matter who you are, An, I will still love you. I mean it."
Her hands rose to cup the brown-haired girl's cheeks. Slowly, Mariko lifted her face and pressed her lips against An's. She stiffened at first but after a few heartbeats, she tightened her arms around Mariko and returned the kiss. When their lips parted in the end, Mariko found An gazing back at her with a pair of deep blue eyes that shone with love. Saying nothing, she relaxed in the other girl's embrace and allowed her head to rest against An's chest. There, she waited.
"Ever since we started hanging out with each other in real life, I was really happy, Mariko," An began after a while, just as Mariko had expected, "I... even planned to make chocolate for you on Valentine's Day and confess to you. But then, I started to become afraid." She paused to take a breath, then continued, "I was really afraid of rejection, but you know, the possibility of you accepting my feelings scared me even more."
"Why?" Mariko asked, puzzled.
"I'm a magnet for bad luck and disaster, Mariko." An gave her a sad smile. "When I was still living with my real dad, he often said that it was my fault his business was failing, that it was me who caused my mom to die." Her face grew so mournful Mariko felt her heart ache just from looking at it. "I think he's right. Staying near me will only do you harm, Mariko."
"That's not true!" Inside her heart, Mariko could feel anger rising. What kind of despicable man would blame his failures on his daughter? What kind of lowlife would say it was her fault that his wife died?
"No, it's true," An insisted. "It was my fault Morgana tried to kill you. It's because of me that the Crimson Knights abandoned you. I'm a burden to whoever I love. I only invite trouble, you see."
"You're not a burden," Mariko whispered. "You won't be. Since our meeting in The World, my life has become more meaningful than it ever was. There were times I thought I would commit suicide to free myself from the hardships I had to endure every single day. An, you're the only person in this world who showed me that there was still joy in continuing to live. To me, you're not simply a necessity, you're my one and only saving grace, you have to know that." Her hand rose upward caress the cheek of the girl she dearly loved. "Morgana targeted me because she noticed I was attracted to you so greatly I couldn't help but stay close to you. I disbanded the Crimson Knights because they had strayed too far away from the ideal I wanted to preserve. They weren't your fault."
Mariko broke in gently, "Besides, even if you do indeed invite trouble, I don't care. The worst thing that can happen to me is losing you, An, why can't you see?" Cupping An's face in both hands, Mariko gazed into the girl's deep blue eyes intently, praying to the Gods of Heaven that her words could make An change her mind. From the girl's softening countenance, from her trembling hands that pressed against Mariko's own ever so gently, Mariko knew her prayer hadn't been wasted.
"I'm so sorry, Mariko," was what the younger girl said before she laid her head on Mariko's shoulder and wept openly in the curves of Mariko's arms. On that day, they became lovers. On that very day, An made her the happiest woman on Earth.
"How can I be better off without you, An?" Mariko sighed as she snuggled closer into the embrace of her young, beautiful girlfriend. She was the older, the more experienced, and the more mature... yet in An's arms she always felt as though she was once more a teenager whose brain melted every time she was touched by the one she loved.
"Have you ever wondered how Madoka-san would react should she learn of our relationship?" An murmured atop Mariko's head, the worried note in her voice ringing more strongly than ever. "I mean she's your mom, the only family member you have left... and she dislikes me." Her hands clutched the fabric on Mariko's back. "I don't want to be the reason that drives you and her apart, Mariko."
"You're a worrywart," Mariko said after a quiet chuckle. "We'll cross that bridge when we cross it. I'll find a way to persuade my mother when it's time for us to tell her. For now, don't you think it's much better for us just to enjoy the moment like we always did back in The World?"
"But your mom..." An insisted. Smiling ruefully, Mariko decided to forestall her beloved.
"Is my mom. She'll learn to accept you, in time, I'm sure of it," she said. "But why do we have to keep talking about her? Say, An, why don't you show me the movie that won your club the school's award? You know, the same one with you as the leading role?"
"Who told you?" An said, startled.
"Ryo-san." Mariko laughed softly as she raised her hand and playfully pinched the younger girl's cheek. "He told me he was invited to the screening premiere. He said your sempais were very pleased about your performance, An."
"Stupid dad, why did you have to tell her?" the high school freshman muttered under her breath. Judging by the girl's irritated tone, Mariko was quite sure Ryo-san would have an earful from his adopted daughter as soon as he returned.
"Why shouldn't he tell me?" Mariko smiled tenderly at An, her hand ruffling the latter's soft brown hair. An gave a start at the question. Mariko didn't think the girl meant what she said to be heard.
"Well... um..." An hesitated, "It's because well... Kaori was the other leading role in the movie. It's a love story; I played a man, she a woman... and I had to kiss her in the end." She gave an exasperated shake of her head. "I curse whoever it was that wrote that script. And the darned director who wanted it to be a real lip-lock, too!"
"I thought your sempai bore a grudge against you now," Mariko said, puzzled. "Why would she let you do that to her?"
"That's the point. She knew I hated her, and that smooching her would disgust me no end," her girlfriend answered, sounding extremely depressed. "It was her own way of getting back at me." She sighed. "She was right. I spent almost half an hour in the restroom afterwards, trying to wash my mouth clean."
"It's just a kiss." Mariko smiled.
"What do you mean it's just a kiss...?" An frowned at her. "Even if I didn't hate Kaori, there still would be no way in hell I'd be willing to kiss her. Or anyone!"
"And why's that?" Mariko asked innocently.
An's face began to color. "You're the only one I want to kiss... Why do you have to ask me what you already knew?"
"No I didn't. You never told me that right out," Mariko murmured before she raised her head to place a quick peck on each of An's cheeks. Looking at An's utterly embarrassed and adorable expression, Mariko couldn't help but feel that perhaps the Gods had compensated more than enough for her disability by introducing An into her life. "Anyways, where's the recording? I really want to see," she said gently.
"Okay fine," the other girl mumbled as she untangled herself from Mariko's arms and got off the bed. "Don't blame me if you get jealous in the end."
A few minutes later, Mariko found herself once more reclining against the headboard, watching the movie on the flat-panel TV standing opposite the bed, her head on An's shoulder, their arms linked, their hands laced, their hearts beating together in a quiet rhythm. Eyes glued at the screen, every once in a while glancing aside to take in the endearing facial features of the one she so dearly loved, Mariko simply marveled at how well An performed in the movie. The lines she read were perfectly natural, the expressions on her face never seemed faked, and the way she interacted with other characters was simply marvelous. Years of watching movies in her room had finally paid off, Mariko supposed.
Near the end of the movie, An, in a three-piece suit, pulled Nagamatsu Kaori, in a white wedding dress, into an embrace in a church and placed a kiss upon the latter's lips. Noticing the malicious gleam in Nagamatsu's eyes and the tight corners of An's deep blue ones, Mariko turned aside, wanting to tease her girlfriend a little bit. What she found, however, was the younger girl's lips an inch away from hers. An gave a violent start and turned away, her face as red as the content of any watermelon. "I'm sorry," she mumbled.
Feeling a blush creeping onto her cheeks, Mariko put a hand on An's face and turned it around so they could look into each other's eyes. "Why do you have to apologize for wanting to kiss your girlfriend?" she murmured before she moved in, wrapped her arms tenderly around the neck of the high school freshman, and finally captured An's sweet and soft lips. Her body being lowered to the soft mattress of the bed was the last thing she sensed before her rational thoughts surrendered to the earthly passion kindled by the intensity of the kiss.
"Oy, An, Mariko, Ryo-san told me to bring you some fruits..." a girl's voice said suddenly and stopped, followed by the sound of china shattering upon the floor. Startled, An literally leapt away from Mariko and ended up falling out of the bed. "I'm sorry!" Footsteps faded hurriedly into the distance.
"Are you okay, An?" Mariko asked worriedly once she had sat up straight on the mattress. "Are you hurt?"
"Ugh, I'm okay," the younger girl answered and rose slowly to her feet. She winced as she sat back down on the bed, by Mariko's side. "Landed on my back, so..." She trailed off and looked at Mariko worriedly. "That was... Kanae, right?"
Mariko nodded. That voice indeed belonged to Mitsuki Kanae, the Heavyblade who called herself Mimiru in The World. Why was she here today? "Did you forget to lock the door, An?" she asked, eyes glancing at the one she loved in amusement. An wasn't absent-minded in nature, yet with Mariko around, An forgot things normal people rarely would. Like locking the door for instant...
"Well... now that I think of it..." An said ruefully, "I don't think I even closed it. I carried you into the room, put you down on the bed, then..." Her face went crimson, probably because of the memory of what had happened... or would have happened had Kanae not interrupted them. Well, Mariko was at fault, too, for during all the time she spent with An in this room, she never paid a scrap of attention to the door, or even cared whether it was open or not. She guessed she had become forgetful in An's presence, just as the latter was in hers.
"Anyways, I think I'll go talk to her, wait for me a little bit, ne?" was what An said before she gathered the broken shards of the china disc into a rubber tray and left, her face heavy with worries.
Alone in the room, Mariko began to think about the consequences of this unexpected turn of events. Now that Kanae had found out about her and An's relationship... what would the girl do? Would she make a fuss and start to avoid them because of their love? Or would she laugh it off and act like nothing had happened? Mariko only hoped it was the latter. Kanae was a good friend who had shared more than just ups and downs with them in The World. Mariko truly didn't want to lose her.